Destination Intact: An Interview with Mary Biddinger

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This probably isn’t legal. Still, this month, we’re giving away tickets for six newly installed rollercoasters at our theme park, all of them crafted by famed lyrical engineer, Mary Biddinger. Mary is the author of four collections (most recently, O Holy Insurgency), editor of both the Akron Series in Poetry and the Akron Series in Contemporary Poetics, and has published work… well, pretty much everywhere.

If you’ve read the poems of Bob Hicok, Dean Young, or Paul Guest, you’ve probably thought to yourself: wow, nobody writes like this! Same goes for Mary. Her poems change directions like some kind of crazed Dr. Seuss freeway—beautiful, terrifying—but somehow, we reach our destination intact. Biddinger demonstrates that at the heart of chaos lies a playful, orderly benevolence. In fact, even though her poems often take us to places we weren’t anticipating, proof of their power and charm lies in the fact that once one ends, all we want to do is run to get in line for the next.

The Lineup
Novena or Never
Charm School
Business Poem
Shop Local
Pin Money
Freeway

Michael: Thanks so much for sharing your labors with us! Especially given your poems’ surreal elements, do you set out with specific ideas in mind, or do you just sit down and write whatever comes to mind at the time?

Mary: Most frequently, it’s the latter, though I need to get the itch to write, and often that itch is connected to a Steely Dan song or the smell of fried onions or a particularly corrupt looking fallen-down building. My poems are often fueled by accumulation, and I accumulate ideas in a little notebook. But once I sit down to write, I need to get carried away. I never know where a poem is going until it’s finished.

Michael: What attracts you to poetry over other art forms like prose, photography, painting, etc?

Mary: I like its compactness. I feel like poetry and photography are sisters, not just because they begin and end with the same letter. I want my poems to be photographs, and vice versa.

Michael: Especially in “Business Poem,” I saw echoes of mundane, daily life. Given the fact that most poets have day jobs and a phalanx of messy obligations, how do you motivate yourself to write amidst distractions?

Mary: I cheat on my obligations by writing poems. It’s the ultimate revenge. Oh, boring meeting, I will get the last word by writing a poem on the approved minutes of 10-1-13! Basically, I let poetry be the distraction. I give it precedence over laundry.

Michael: I’m intrigued by how your poems’ orderly, crafted appearance on the page coexists with their wild, lyrical energy. Tell me, do you typically choose the form of a poem as you write or do you write all the lines, then shift them around into different forms (couplets, tercets, etc) to see which you like best?

Mary: Most often, I write in lines, but sometimes I write a long block and then do the math, and divide accordingly. This can be fun, anyway, because you can create unexpected emphasis in a poem, and a new effect by dividing some parts up.

Michael: How has your aesthetic changed over the years?

Mary: I have become more confident in my decisions, and thus I have become stranger. I’m a strange gal. It’s not an act. In poetry, it’s okay to be the person who makes wild associations and doesn’t keep them to herself. Maybe I have also let go of narrative, and let images do more of the talking.

Michael: Do you have any advice for aspiring poets?

Mary: As a student, often my workshop poems were followed by uncomfortable silence, until the teacher stepped in and said something. To all those out there with the same situation: it’s not a bad thing. Learn to take what you can from advice, and to let go of suggestions (or criticism) that you don’t believe in. Ultimately, your poem belongs to you. Let people help, but remember that you are the ultimate authority on your work.

Photo by: Jiahui Huang

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About Author

Michael Meyerhofer’s third book, Damnatio Memoriae, won the Brick Road Poetry Book Contest. His previous books are Blue Collar Eulogies (Steel Toe Books) and Leaving Iowa (winner of the Liam Rector First Book Award). He has also won the James Wright Poetry Award, the Laureate Prize, the Annie Finch Prize for Poetry, the Marjorie J. Wilson Best Poem Contest, and five chapbook prizes. His work has appeared in Ploughshares, North American Review, Arts & Letters, River Styx, Quick Fiction and other journals, and can be read online at his website.

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